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The need of the hour: A building code for Sri Lanka

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Tuesday, 11 July 2017 00:00

Buildings are ‘live assets’ which are intimately interactive with human lives on a daily basis. It is expected that a building is designed and constructed in a manner that the building occupants would feel safe and comfortable to accommodate the building.

However, it is not the only characteristic associated with the buildings. Experts say that a building must perform according to an acceptable performance level and pattern, during its economic life. This means that the building must be functional, fit for the purpose and also it should cater to equitable accessibility for all, accommodating users of all shapes, sizes and abilities.Untitled-1

In addition, the building must have built-in alternative emergency evacuation routes, for speedy evacuation of occupants during an emergency. In case of a major fire, the building components should withstand the fire for a nominated time period without a catastrophic failure occurring until all occupants safely vacate the building. The building should have fire safety mechanisms installed to ensure fire compartmentation, separation and fire suppression. The portable and built-in fire-fighting equipment and apparatus must be in place at correct locations and at optimal operational levels for the fire brigade to control the fire. There are many more periodic maintenance requirements to be fulfilled to ensure structural integrity, user safety and internal hygienic environment of the building.

The buildings within a precinct should be considered as a collection of buildings rather than each building in isolation. Hence, buildings should have fire gaps along property boundaries to ensure that a fire does not propagate from one property to another. External envelope of the building should be made of non-combustible material especially along other property boundaries.

The compliance requirements for buildings are numerous to list and it is beyond the scope of this article. 

Let’s draw our attention to a few major incidents that occurred recently. 

In November 2014, the 23 storey Lacrosse Tower located in Australia, Melbourne’s inner west suburb Docklands, caught fire, simply due to a lit cigarette butt left on its 6th floor external balcony. It resulted in combustible external cladding material catching fire. The investigators found that the fire spread from the 6th floor to 21st floor within a mere 11 minutes. Fortunately, there were no fatalities as the fire remained outside the building due to the activation of fire sprinklers inside the building, until fire fighters managed to extinguish it.

This fire prompted Victoria State-wide audit of high rise buildings and found more than half of the 170 buildings audited had combustible cladding material, violating the Building Code of Australia (BCA). However, these buildings were safe for living due to other fire safety measures that had been in place. Nevertheless, majority of these buildings were progressively made fully BCA compliant.

In June 2017, London’s Grenfell Tower building caught on fire, repeating the Lacrosse fire scenario, due to the presence of combustible external cladding material that caught on fire. Here, 58 people tragically died, partly because the tower did not have sprinklers like in the Lacrosse Tower. 

All the above happened in the developed countries which had tougher construction compliance regulation enforcement. There, it was not the authorities who failed but the agencies entrusted to carry out the checks and give approvals on behalf of the authorities. 

It is scary to imagine the situation in a country where authorities failed even to develop comprehensive construction compliance regulations, let alone enforcing the regulations.

Of course, the author refers to Sri Lanka. 


Worst form of crime collaborated by so-called authorities and professionals

A five storey building located in Wellawatte, Colombo collapsed in May 2017, resulting in a fatality and injuries to many. The Sri Lankan Government is now in a hurry, announcing public that 10,000 unauthorised buildings will be demolished. Does this mean the Sri Lankan Government authorities knew that 10,000 unauthorised structures had been built, but did nothing? 

This is like a medical doctor treating symptoms without eliminating the cause.

Let’s consider the following scenario. 

A financial institution, say, a bank approves a home loan to build an unauthorised (structurally and functionally non-compliant) building and a local authority issues an occupational certificate and a conformity certificate for the building after a casual check of a few signed documents. Then, an insurer issues a building insurance cover for this building. Finally, you can close the loop of this dreaded situation by visualising the structural or fire induced failure of this building, perishing occupants, adjoining property occupants including the public who happened to be nearby.

Isn’t this the worst form of a crime collaborated by the so-called authorities and professionals?

In Sri Lanka, when such a tragic event occurs, there would be a chorus blaming each other. Would there be anyone to take the responsibility of the mishap? 

Let’s consider another scenario. When a building is designed, constructed and approved, it is done based on ‘the intended use’. The compliance services such as fire management services must be set accordingly and annually checked and certified to ensure the essential services and the building as a whole are performing the way originally intended and the building is safe for the occupants.

How about the situation that the owner of the building decides to change the intended use of the building? In developed countries, the building owner is not legally entitled to change the originally declared use, without having approval from the original development approval authority. The change of use requires re-assessment and approval as new compliance measures may have to be introduced to ensure the building is suitable for the new use.

In reality, the bank who funded the building construction, the insurer who insured the building and the local authority who gave the original occupation certificate and the certificate of conformity must be notified of the change of use and the new approval should be obtained.

‘Lucky’ run

Does this happen in Sri Lanka? 

Sri Lanka has had a somewhat ‘lucky’ run, not having to witness a major disaster in terms of building failures due to lack of structural integrity and or lack of fire compliance measures in place.

The author would like to warn everyone involved not to push this ‘luck’ too much and the day is not too far of a disaster of such a magnitude, at the rate non-compliant buildings are being built. 

It is alarming to see how haphazard the buildings are being built in Sri Lanka. The author suggests the readers to run Google street view along a Sri Lankan road and compare it with that of a street in a developed country, to understand how poor the building planning and construction regulations are being applied in Sri Lanka. It is easy to detect obvious non-compliances such as the encroachment of road reserve by builders, inconsistent planning restrictions on fire protection passages between properties, unauthorised additions to existing buildings, etc. Many buildings do not have proper driveway entry profiles and standards. Poor quality construction can be visible even to naked eyes.

On a daily basis, the public enters partially functional, poorly designed, unsafe private and public buildings. Unfortunately, the difficulties and even the injuries faced by the public due to substandard constructions go unnoticed and the responsible professionals move on unpunished. Modern countries treat public equitably. The author personally witnessed that the majority of buildings in Sri Lanka do not have suitable access arrangements for the disabled or aged people to reach functional spaces of the buildings. Many developed countries have accessibility requirements included into the Building Codes to accommodate people with special needs. 

Usually, the real estate investors look for the places characterised by certain economic stimulus. This includes the high growth of property value, quick financial return on investments, the low construction cost due to lower labour and material costs and the less stringent environmental and compliance regulations.

Sri Lanka has this perfect mix.

No wonder that the property investors are flocking and competing with each other to grab their share on Sri Lankan soil. May be they are secretly laughing at the approval authorities as well. The nation, the general public and most probably the future generation would pay the price for the lacklustre performance of present generation administrators and local approval authorities. 

There are no short-cut solutions to rectify this situation. It can only be achieved through hard work by a dedicated group of independent professionals who have no secret political agendas but with only technical and social objectives to ensure buildings are designed, constructed, maintained and operated in a safe and compliant manner.


Comprehensive legally enforceable Building Code of Practice

Sri Lanka should develop a comprehensive legally enforceable Building Code of Practice. It is the one and only solution. 

This code should be applied to all building construction works carried out island-wide, irrespective of geographic location and the scale of the construction. The buildings are to be classified according to the type of use. This code should cover development activities of all the classes of buildings. 

The Task Group should consist of engineers (disciplines such as civil, structural, mechanical, fire, etc.), architects, town planners, occupational hygienists, risk management specialists, accessibility specialists, environmental scientists, sociologists, etc. The author believes that the engineers should lead this process as the buildings are basically engineering structures. 

However, the author expects the engineers who lead this process to acquire certain socio-engineering skills as this is not a pure technical process. The Building Code of Practice must have humane and social accountability elements, in addition to the technical details. The Code should work equitably for both the Code users and the service outcome receivers to prevent it becoming an impractical technical hurdle. 

The author believes that the task group needs external guidance and help. They should be cautious not to get trapped into the popular nationalistic sentiment that only home-grown solutions are the best. All professionals should be open minded to look for international resources available as the developed countries are many miles ahead of producing and adopting best practice codes.

Prior to developing the Building Code, the group must understand the magnitude and the scale of the task. Buildings are made of materials of varied quality and useful lives. So materials can fail on multiple occasions within its life-cycle. Building spaces are designed for many usage purposes. Hence, buildings are generally complex assets. Buildings must be adequately safe for the users to move around, structurally stable, comfortably habitable, equitably accessible, operationally functional and environmentally sustainable. This is where the design standards, the construction standards, environmental standards, safety standards and the user comfort requirements are to be worked in unison. The Building Code of Practice will have to serve as a tool to achieve this harmony. 

The author is aware of the availability of the Factories Ordinance, the Fire Safety Regulations developed by CIDA, the manual on ‘Energy Savings in Buildings’ developed by Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority and the Construction Material Specifications developed by the former Institute for Construction and Development. All these documents are valuable and applicable. However, there is no unified Sri Lankan Standard Code of Practice available to enforce complete spectrum of design, construction and compliance requirements.

Sri Lanka has nine provinces, 25 districts, 331 divisional secretariats and 14,022 Grama Niladhari divisions. Hierarchically, there are pradesheeyasabahs, urban, municipal and provincial councils with the Government of Sri Lanka at the peak. Decisions on development activities are made at all aforementioned levels. Approval process of construction activities in Sri Lanka became more complex, when the State agencies such as Urban Development Authority (UDA), Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation and Department of Agrarian Development were thrown into the decision making mix. Local political influence would make this worse. 

How can a small country like Sri Lanka handle these kinds of complexities in the approval process? 

In the above setup, there are overlaps of authority, conflicts of instructions, contradictory regulations and compliance loopholes. It will be a futile effort to unravel this to develop a better system. The sensible approach would be to develop a new Code of Practice for design and construction of buildings and legalise its enforcement, country wide. This needs a holistic and step by step approach. The author believes that UDA, as the premier agency for issuing major development approvals, should take the agency leadership role to develop the Unified Building Code for Sri Lanka.

Australian approach

As guidance, the author would like to summarise the Australian approach on developing its National Construction Series. 

The current three volume Australian National Construction Code Series specify minimum requirements for safety, health, amenity and sustainability in the design and construction of buildings in Australia.

Volume 1: Building Code of Australia – Volume I which applies to commercial, industrial and multi residential buildings. 

Volume II: Building Code of Australia – Volume II which applies to houses, sheds and carports.

Volume III: Plumbing Code which applies to all buildings on plumbing and drainage. 

The Australian Constitution sets out roles, responsibilities and powers of Australian Government. As health safety and amenity of people in buildings is not covered in the Australian Constitution, Australian State and Territories Governments take the responsibility on regulating these aspects. From 1965, the Australian Government appointed a series of interstate standing committees, councils and institutions over 30 years period and worked tirelessly to develop its first performance based Building Code of Practice in 1996. 

The performance based code concept was a novel concept practised in Australia. The most important aspect of a product is not only its constituent materials but also the safe and effective performance of the product as a whole. Hence, the specification outlines how the constituent materials should withstand intended physical conditions and how the product should perform. Also, in case of buildings, it pays attention to how the building should perform as a whole. 

This is akin to a human body. Human body is not just a collection of organs. What matters is how each organ performs at correct level individually and collectively in a synchronised manner, stimulated by correct signals at correct times and consequently, how the whole body performs as a single unit. 

The Building Code of Australia is structured hierarchically so that the concept behind its application can easily be understood. It starts from the ‘objectives’ and is followed up by the ‘performance requirements’ and then the ‘building solutions’. The community expectations are incorporated into the regulation under the objectives. Objectives are followed up by functional statements, outlining how to satisfy community expectations. Then, the performance requirements and levels are set in terms of materials, components, design methods and construction methods. By doing so, the building meets the relevant functional statements and objectives. These are mandatory requirements that should be satisfied. The final step of the hierarchy is the building solution to ensure compliance with performance requirements.

Building Code of Australia accepts two building solutions.

BCA gives ‘Deemed to Satisfy’ provision as a direct solution. That means that implementation of the suggested solution is considered as the full compliance with the performance standards. BCA does encourage innovation. This is why it encourages alternative solutions. The designer and the builder have no obligation to adopt the deemed to satisfy solutions. An assessment authority can still approve an alternative solution if it delivers the relevant performance requirements. The alternative solution will be assessed before offering the final approval.

The author believes that Sri Lanka needs to follow a similar process and develop its Building Code of Practice. 

Relevant professionals have to develop the first draft of the code and test it through technical designers and construction professionals. As the first attempt and to save time of deliberations, Sri Lankan engineers can use the Building Code of Australia as the prototype with necessary permission from the Australian Building Codes Board. Then, the draft should be referred to a Government legal draftsman to verify its enforceability as a Code of Practice countrywide. The final draft must be presented to a steering committee of political representatives to identify community issues on implementation, but most importantly, not to compromise on technical and compliance requirements. The level of communication and negotiations skills of the task group matters here.

Finally, the enforcement of the Code must be legalised through a Bill of Parliament. The final outcome of the process is to produce a Code of Practice for both designers and builders to comply with, irrespective of the geographical location of the building. 

The author reckons that a dedicated, high level task group can produce a Building Code of Sri Lanka within two years. Of course, the final decision and the taking of leadership role rest with an agency like Urban Development Authority, Sri Lankan engineers and professional institutions like the Institution of Engineers and the Institution of Architects. It is the author’s humble belief that there will be enough support from overseas patriotic Sri Lankan engineers for this effort, at least through remote means such as email, Skype and Webinar. 

(The writer is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow and an accredited International Professional Engineer of Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka. He currently works for Australian Local Government Sector. He has overall 30 years of experience as a professional engineer. He is contactable via email; senevir15@gmail.com). 

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